Sunday, August 31, 2014

Basket weaving for mandarin eaters

My mum's been keenly following the adventures of a family of sea-eagles on whose highrise Sydney nest is trained a live-streaming sea-eagle cam (here, for those of you who need a bit of sea-eagle voyeurism in your lives). Every so often the family ornithologist emails my sisters and me an update: the egg's hatched!, the father's just brought back a dead fish!, the chick's taken up violin! I was very impressed to learn from Mum yesterday that the sea-eagles' nest is now six feet wide. That's, like, 183cm or so in the new money. Big! It's a truly impressive structure, woven out of sticks that have somehow stayed together through storms and rain, the comings and goings of a pair of grown-up sea-eagles, and the shenanigans of the baby sea-eagle (who, admittedly, doesn't seem to be doing much besides eating bits of regurgitated fish).

As a person with reproductive designs of my own, I see this nest as something of a challenge. Being able to weave a vaguely permanent structure out of natural fibres is clearly a vital parenting prerequisite, and one I lack. I was pondering all this yesterday as we wandered under the willows along the gully near Ma Harlot's place. Long yellow willow wands, just sprouting their spring leaves, were hanging from the trees like hair and a good scattering of these had detached from the trees and were lying on the ground. These fresh lengths of pliable wood looked like pretty perfect stuff for some amateur nest-smithing.

Or basket-smithing. Back when I were a wee lad, basket-weaving was regularly cited as the height of pointless hippy dilettantism, than which there is no better incentive for a person of my proclivities to wangle some natural fibres into a vaguely bowl-shaped mess. So, behold, my pointless hippy dilettante basket-making method:

1. I make two wreathes of roughly equal circumference. A wreath is just three or so lengths of willow, twisted together into a circle, with the ends tucked in.

2. I fit one wreath around another so that they form right angles (one wreath will form the keel and the handle of the basket, and the other will form the rim of the bowl). At this point I rummage around in my mother's kitchen cupboards until I find her string (although a purist would be using her  own nettle cordage), and secure the wreathes together with a God's-eye lashing.

(For those who skipped the God's-eye-lashing chapter of Girl Guides, there's a neato instruction video here.)

3. I extend the God's eye with some more willow. (It's not really bendy enough for this to work well, but, hey, we amateur sea eagles can't aspire to instant perfection.)

4. I cut some lengths of willow and use these to make the ribs of the bowl. The ends of the ribs get tucked into the messy God's eye lashing, so it helps to make these ends a bit pointy and to make the God's eye fairly substantial.

5. Beginning at one end of the bowl, close to the handle/keel and bowl-rim conjunction, I fold a length of willow in half and begin weaving it back and forth between the ribs. With my next length, I start at the conjunction on the other side. The ribs are at risk of popping out of their God's-eye anchors during this process, but they can be tucked back in again, and as the weaving progresses it secures the ribs.

And so, ta da!, a basket:

While it may not be quite the thing for a family of sea-eagles, it's perfect for mandarins or other things like mandarins (though I should note that when I offered it to my mother for just this purpose, she politely rejected it, which casts some suspicion over whether she really did think the spray-painted macaroni jewellery I gave her for Christmas '82 was the height of fashion).

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Almond redivivus

The bees in the almond blossom this week, my happiness levels; there's definitely some kind of correlation. Serious noxiousness has been going down at work (not directly affecting me for now, thank goodness, but affecting people I respect and love and an institution I care about), and while obviously the presence of bees in almond blossom has no impact whatsoever on that situation, it's been palpably good for my coping capacity. I watch those bees in that blossom -- they're like pigs who've happened upon troughs full of strawberry sponge cake, you can almost see them growing fatter -- and it's instantly clear that despite Christopher Pyne and shitsome redundancies and friends having to take stress leave, life goes on, in all its blossoming flower-pillaging superorganismic splendour. (While I'm acknowledging my animal-companions-cum-psychotherapists: a special thanks to euphoriator-in-chief, Beatrice Cat, who celebrates the new dawn by sprawling across my torso, putting her arms on either side of my neck, and kneading my pillow. Truly, there's nothing more life-affirming that a loving whisker up the nostril.)

So I paid a twilit visit today to the almond trees, for the health of my heart. There were no bees, of course (bees are sensible people who go to bed at sunset, and earlier still on chilly Winter afternoons), but I did spy sprouting out of the ground underneath one of the trees a small horde of what I thought were almond suckers. I don't need almond suckers, so I tugged one up, and lo!, it wasn't a sucker at all, but a seedling.

Almond seedling with almond still attached.

I'm guessing that when the cockatoos ransacked the perfectly just ripe almonds late last January, they dropped a few on the ground, as they do. The Winter came, the rain rained (not much, grr), the soil got cold and then warmed up a little bit, and hey sprongo!, six little almond seedlings all beneath the canopy of Messrs. Almondo Nonpareil and Carmel. (While we're on the subject of birds and seedlings, one thing I do so love about herbivorous birds is the way they farm their preferred crops by sowing the seeds - usually in a nice packet of highly nitrogenous fertiliser - all around their habitats. Farming doesn't require tractors and pesticides; we just need to eat the fruit we like and then fly around pooing out the seeds. While this is not yet our national agricultural policy, I am planning to illustrate my theory with flowcharts and send it to the Hon Barnaby Joyce, MP, whom I'm sure will appreciate its elegance.)

Six little almonds, or only five, now that I've torn the taproot on the little 'un in the photo. That's five potential almond trees more than I have room for, but I'm nonetheless contemplating a pretty darn thrilling experiment in almond-rearing. Seedling almonds are risky as food plants – their fruit might have a higher cyanide content than grafted almond varieties – but if all goes well and my seedlings survive in pots, I'll be able to graft scions from my two trees (next Winter, I suppose) and then rehome these almond babies in someone else's garden and/or in an inconspicuous spot on public land (hoorah!). 

This also makes me happy. Thanks be to last year's bees who pollinated the flowers that brought these seeds into being, to this year's cockatoos who so generously dropped them on the ground, and to all the lovely microbes in our good Lalor earth who tended to the seeds in their ineffable microbial way.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Bees and the beginning of spring

The number one beekeeping principle around Chateau Lalor is minimal interference. There are a few reasons for this:

1. I have been living with bees for less than three years. The bees, on the other hand, have been living with bees since the Cenozoic era. Even drawing on as much of my species' bee-lore as I have been able to glean in less than three years, the chances of me knowing better than the bees what's good for them is slim tapering to non-existent.

2. Interference risks compromising their health. As for all good things (Schwarzwälderkirschtorte, Pilzdorfpuppenhaus*), the lingua Germanica is on top of this issue, having coined the untenably lovely word, Nestduftwärmebindung. It describes the bees' capacity to keep their nest at a cosy, brood-supporting temperature, more or less irregardless (as they say) of external temperature fluctuations. If we pull open the hive, the warmth disperses and the bees have to work harder to get their babies warm again. The "duft" bit of Nestduftwärmebindung refers to scent, and that gets dispersed too, so hello endemic wax moths, small hive beetles, European wasps, and other bees looking to nick some tasty honey, who all get an extra good whiff of wide open beehive. And finally (or probably not finally, but enough for now), there's a range of bee diseases that are best understood as diseases caused by beekeepers. If there isn't a word for that, then German really needs to get onto it. The truly revolting American foul brood, for instance, is most often introduced to a hive by a beekeeper who picked up infected wax from one hive, didn't clean her tools, and then brought those tools to another hive.

3. It's better for me. Despite there being fifty thousand stinging insects living not ten metres from my back door, I haven't been stung for a year (and when I have been stung in my short beekeeping past, it's because I've been poking around in the hive). Mellow bees make for unstung mammals, which, given the density of mammals (esp. humans) in this here supurbia, seems a good combination.

There are, though, about four times a year when we do need to interfere. And one of them is when this happens:

 a bee with her pannier-bags already swollen is contracting polyamorous marriages between almond-blossoms like there's no tomorrow;

 the lavender and the rosemary throw an early party;

the tagasaste in the park is indecently floral.

When these chaps start flowering, and the peaches and plums are all on the cusp of budburst, the apricots not far behind, the pears and apples ready to bring up spring's rear (sotospeak), we know that the bees are perhaps a week or two away from bursting the seams of their accommodations -- and if that happens, they'll accelerate their spring swarm (where the queen takes off with half the workers to find more commodious digs). Swarming is mostly a good thing - it's the way the superorganism reproduces itself - but when our bees swarm, we want it to be because they're happy and healthy, not because they're out of room.

So, yesterday, in the rare late August warmth, we added an extra empty box to their stack. We put it underneath the existing boxes. Bees prefer to store honey high in the hive, and keep their brood lower down - this, I guess, something to do with temperature control. Putting the empty box underneath the existing ones encourages the bees to expand their brood-rearing downwards, thereby vacating the existing brood cells, so these can be filled with honey. As the formerly-brood-now-honey-cells move to the top of the hive, we can harvest spare honey, and that way we take away the scungy wax that the brood was reared in twelve months earlier. The comb that's been used for brood at some stage always has cocoons in it, which we render and filter out of the wax (and a delightful process that is, too). When beekeepers keep adding boxes to the top of the hive, and not to the bottom, they get gorgeous pristine honeycomb, cocoon-free, but the bees are forced to keep laying eggs in the same cocoon-lined cells, and as successive cocoons accumulate, the cells shrink.

So. In short. The bees now have plenty of room, just in time for the imminent Spring nectar-flow; their hive is right underneath our generous Japanese plum, and I can imagine them eyeing it off as lasciviously as I am; and I've had my spying-inside-their-home fix for the quarter, much to their collective exasperation. There was, you'll be perhaps horrified to learn, a minor plague of earwigs living in their roof and a small slug in the uppermost box. These guys aren't really problems for the bees, but I violated my own the-bees-can-sort-themselves-out rule, and de-slugged and ex-earwigged their house for them. Which is more than I've done for my own house lately.

* possibly not a word

Monday, August 18, 2014

A month

Good Dog, a whole month seems to have slipped by with nary an official despatch to HQ. It's been a month, this month.

1. We lost two dear hens. The first to go was Pamela, the sweet housechook who came into our lives earlier this year. She disappeared one early morning from the front garden, having spent the night safely tucked up on her perch in the laundry. We knocked on neighbours' doors, and phoned the local pound and the vets, searched for feathers, kept hoping that she'd turn up. Pamela was our survivor. She'd lived in the battery cage, survived (we think) a culling, got brought to our frontdoor by a neighbour who thought the best way to carry her was upsidedown, with his hand round her legs. Her first week at our place she barely left the patch of newspaper in our living room where we'd stationed her food and water, but within the month, she'd perfected her digging skills by turned our metre high frontyard compost hill into a minor valley. She'd sit next to Tim while he typed at his desk. She laid an egg, in the soft centre of an armchair. She liked to perch on an arm and fall asleep with her body pressed against a human torso. So, you can imagine, we've been missing her and furious with ourselves for not keeping her safe.

Pamela, learning the art of chook 

 Pamela in a sunpuddle on local newspaper

Pamela being lovely 

Pamela laying an egg on Harriet the Cat's blanket

A few days later, we called the remaining flock out to the green-patch behind our back fence for some supervised grazing. The green-patch behind our back fence is every chicken's favourite place, and when we open the back gate and call, everyone leaps from wherever she happens to be and gallops to the gate. And so it was, only halfway through her sprint across the backyard, Griselda fell over dead. Just like that. Gris was one of our first two chooks, sister to Daisy, and only three and a half years old. We didn't have the stomach for an autopsy, so have buried her and her mysterious cause-of-death in the front yard, plonking a just arrived barerooted peche de vigne on top of her.

 Daisy and Griselda ascending the potato patch protector in hopes of sneaking into the raised veg bed of temptation.

 Griselda, supermodel.

Griselda, in younger days, giving the poorly citrus an encouraging word. 

Griselda, upstaging the pea teepee.

2. And then I found out I was pregnant, only to find out a week later that I wasn't pregnant anymore. So that was a thing. In the intervening week, I had alerted half the town, so I had to unalert everyone (and so that's why people wait a month or three before disclosing up-the-duffitude ... not that I have learnt the error of my ways, being a serial overdiscloser on matters uterine). I was leaking half a ton of blood when I got home to a letter from the IVF people congratulating us on our pregnancy and advising the delivery date: 7th April, 2015 (W. Wordsworth's birthday, give or take a couple of centuries). This was splendid timing from the IVF people, who I have to say are pretty weird, what with their muzak-accompanied embryo transfers and their hey-here's-a-photo-of-your-blastocyst-to-help-you-get-even-more-emotionally-invested-in-this-highly-likely-to-fail-procedure.

3. Tim's ma visited from Newcastle. Somehow her presence caused us to be driving up the damp ferny foresty side of the lovely Mount Donna Buang. Halfway up, we slurped 40 litres of Donna Buang spring water into our jerry cans. Locals allege this water has travelled over a thousand years and many thousands of kilometres from central Australia. Hard to say whether this is so or not, but this water tastes sweet and clean and (I let myself imagine) sort of sacred, and beats our normal options: i.e., (a) scungy bird-poo-ridden roof-water stored in our watertank and not entirely recommended for human consumption and (b) chlorinated eau de tap, the anti-bacterial properties of which are not excellent for some of our projects, like seed soaking and sourdough propagating. (Oh, and, snow! It was snowing! There was snow!)

Mount Donna Buang in her least photogenic moment of all time, with dag in fluoro jacket, muddy road snow and 4WD hatchbacks.

4. Yesterday we set out along the outer northern suburbs' most poetically named gutter, Henderson's Drainage Trail, in search of tasty weeds for a tasty weed pie. It turns out that if you get carried away walking up Henderson's Drainage Trail, you end up at Henderson's Lakes, walking along a contrived water-front promenade thingo in South Morang, where your presence will only serve to taunt moor-hens and wood-ducks and swans with the false promise of tasty bread-crumby stuff you don't happen to have with you. If you veer off to the West, though, you find yourself in Wuthering Heights. There's this brisk, windswept hill that carries you up to a peak from which you can look down on all of Melbun. On the way down the other side, we interrupted three reddish roos, who hopped down to a fence line and then - bound - over the fence (the biggest one, anyway, cleared the fence like is was no higher than a toothpick, though the littlest sniffed along it looking for a way through rather than over). Further along I spied three seconds of fox, making a dash across the path and into a copse of gum trees. We ambled through paddocks, possibly illegally, until we got to Darebin Creek, and made our way home - with a bagful of plantain leaves, nettles, cardoon stalks, wild brassicas, chickweed and mallow for our pie.

Henderson's Drainage Trail, with Free-range Shopping Trolley

5. The almonds started blossoming. Springy!

Swallow Impersonators and almond blossom. 

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Nettleware for the Discerning Gentleman

You may have heard tell of our enviable nettle surfeit. Yep, we have a nettle surfeit, if indeed it's possible to have too much of such a useful friend (I mean, the stings alone ... way to conquer your crippling ennui). Having exhausted the possibilities of nettle pesto, nettle soup, nettle gnocci, steeped nettle liquid fertiliser, nettle tea, nettle spanakopita, and nettles in your nemesis's pillow (I'd never, the waste), I was pretty darn excited to read on Asparaguspea that nettle string is a thing. And a thing that uses up the fibres from the nettle stalks while the leaves are put to more gustatory purposes, no less.

I don't quite have the time/patience to hand-spin enough nettle string for a whole shirt, though that would be the excellentest thing, and if ever I have an engrossing 156-hour cult tv series in a boxed DVD set that I have to watch for, erm, work, then I Will Do It (nettle shirts for all!). In the meantime, I figured a nettle coronet might be do-able, King Lear style:

Alack, 'tis he: why, he was met even now
As mad as the vex'd sea; singing aloud;
Crown'd with rank fumiter and furrow-weeds,
With bur-docks, hemlock, nettles, cuckoo-flowers,
Darnel, and all the idle weeds that grow
In our sustaining corn. 

If this is the kind of challenge you're up for, then first you have to source your nettles. As they're not being eaten, you don't have to worry about their glyphosate-and/or-lead-free status so much, which is good, because there are few things so fine as tromping along delightful, but possibly slightly toxified, gullies with a sturdy nettle-receptacle over your arm and a pair of gloves on your paws. You'll be looking for the longer nettle stems. Midgy ones aren't much use. And you'll want to watch the patch of skin between the cuff of your sleeve and the top of your glove. By the way.

Once you have a goodly supply of nettles, you remove the leaves (good for eating if from a reliable source, or composting if not), and then peel the outer fibre - the epidermis - off the stalks in strips as long as you can make 'em. I kept my gloves on for the leaf removal, but didn't worry too much for the stem-skinning.

And then let them dry over night. And then, the next day, take a strip, fold it over in the middle to make a loop and then start twisting the two halves around each other from the loop down towards the loose ends of the fibre. When you're a few centimetres from the ends, you introduce another strip, folded over in half again to make a U-shape, then insert the U into your prior twist, and then ... okay, too complicated. See here for clear instructions on how to make your own personal cordage out of whatever you fancy.

By now, on the "one, two, skip a few, ninety-nine, a hundred" principle of nettle-coronet-manufacture, you will have a length of nettle string. Ta da!


Now, for the super complicated bit: you corner your King Lear substitute, assess her/his mental health and parenting philosophy (you don't want anyone you know to be too much of a King Lear substitute) and then you wrap your nettle crown around the crowny bits of her/his head. Double ta da!

Tim, practising for his career as a Sad Etsy Boyfriend, not that I am going to attempt to sell my bodgo nettle crown on Etsy, now that I have seen that Etsy lists this machine-spun nettle yarn of splendour.

Verdict: my technique needs work, but nettle-based textiles and I have a future.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Saffron Milkcaps and the glory of free mushrumps

A couple of months ago, my mum and the Lalorians visited Petty's Orchard, a sort of living museum for heirloom apple varieties tucked quietly down a lane in suburban Templestowe. It was May, so there wasn't a lot to see, apple-wise, besides the lichen-laden boughs of the trees, espaliered and trellised in various exciting configurations, but we poked around in the produce shop attached to the orchard, and after a while I noticed that Mum was looking intently at a box of pine mushrooms for sale.

We popped up to the motherland in north-east Victoria this week for a Sibling Convergence of Excellence (with Bonus Partners and Offspring and Non-Human Vertebrate Companions, so, in short, ten humans, two cats, one beagle, ten chooks) and Mum mentioned to me that there were some fungi down the road that looked very like the pine mushrooms she'd seen. I've bought pine mushrooms before - for a mere $35 a kilo or so - so I already had a good sense of what they look like, how delicious they are, and how rarely I can justify getting them. Here were multitudes, growing in the good old earth.

Saffron milkcap, aka pine mushroom, aka Lactarius deliciosus (the name's a clue), fruiting like a boss.

I'm not a super confident mushroomer. There's a mushroom that pops up round Lalor in Winter that looks quite a lot like the field mushroom, Agaricus campestris - sufficiently so that we gathered some a few years ago and started cooking them. They stunk of burning rubber and we realised, before anything untoward had happened, that they were yellow stainers, Agaricus xanthodermus. So I'm wary (I've heard enough about death-caps over the last few years), but obviously not as wary as I am greedy. Also, your Lactariuses deliciosuses are famously some of the most easily identified mushrooms in Australia. 

I took a couple of photos:

Mushroom showing off her gills and bare stipe.

Mushroom showing off depressed cap.

and then plonked them up on Pfaczbuch with demands for a final verification from the team. This is not the OH&S-authorised method of suspect fungus identification, by the way, but I happen to have some very cluey friends in the foraging department. One of them (the son of a couple of early-adopter permaculturalists, who grew up eating straight from the garden, the kind of person you could rely on to magic a four-course dinner out of a roadside nature strip) instantly started reeling off synonyms for "pine mushroom": Edel reizker, revellones, saffron milk caps. So three of us adults chucked a few in our mushroom (Agaricus bisporus) soup and never looked back.

The next day, my littlest nieces and I set off up the hill behind Ma Harlot's to forage for mushrooms. Which is, you know, highly responsible aunting, especially considering that amidst the pine mushrooms were the similarly coloured Amanita muscaria, infamous psychoactive intoxicants.

Amanita muscaria, or fly agaric, hanging out in the woods .

The nieces were thrilled with the hunt. Or maybe that was just me. Someone was thrilled, anyway. We clambered back down the hill with about five kilos of beauties, and then cooked pine mushroom and kale risotto for ten people, leaving enough pine mushrooms over to accompany dinner for the next few days.

Pine mushrooms a-chopped in preparation for mush-sotto. The flesh stains a coppery blue when bruised.

Yesterday, in the hour before packing, I headed up the hill again, and gathered up a modest supply for us to take home. We left more than half of the mushrooms we spotted, not least so that they'll spore well for next year. Perhaps we needn't have worried (these mushrooms were fruiting all over the place: along a road six kilometres from my mother's house, under the deodars in the local cemetery), but there's a lot about the secret life of myco-things that I don't understand, and maybe the trees need them, or something in the soil does.

I therefore conclude with this moss-log-dolphin-wombat-hole assemblage, symbolising the interconnectedness of things and/or processes in the organic world. You're welcome :-)

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Mid-winter and the minds of plants

Apart from a rogue frost early in May, Winter's taken its time getting to Lalor. Finally, this week, the winds tugged the russety leaves off our plum, Melbun's specialty, the cold needly thin rain that doesn't quite soak the soil, set in, and the cats started cuddling the heater for six hours in a row.

Winter Solstice backyard action. L to R in a sort of clockwise direction: newly leafless Japanese quince, fly screen being used to protect potato patch from chickens, cumquat shortly after removal of three kilos of cumquats, fancy-pants chook-proof corrugated iron raised veg bed, water chestnut bowl with the blanched water chestnut reeds still in, bunked down for Winter beehive under plum tree, kiwi-fruit archway, globe artichoke having the best time everrrrr, dude, purple salvia getting in some late June florescence before anyone tells it its meant to look spindly and sad at this time of year.

I worry sometimes about how our plants read the increasingly erratic weather. Last year, after a horrifically dry Summer, one of the apple trees produced a spray of (Spring) blossom - in Autumn. The blossom set fruit and we had to pull the hard green little apples off so that the tree wouldn't waste energy on them over Winter. Beekeepers in central Victoria have been talking about the gum trees going on strike. This year (not so bad for us, really), we have Autumn-raspberries fruiting in mid-Winter.

Autumn Bliss Raspberry, considering changing its name to Depths-of-Winter Fruit.

And our Autumn-flowering rosemary seems to be flowering at the tippy end of June, tempting the bees out of bed, when we thought we'd set them up to stay indoors and quaff honey til late August.

Rosemary of Bee Temptation.

I heard a really very fabulous paper recently by an evolutionary biologist, Monica Gagliano, who has discovered that plants can learn. She's worked with mimosas, a plant that has evolved to fold in its leaves when touched, exposing its spines and making its green bits look less appetising to vegetarians. In the act of repulsing herbivores, though, it reduces its own opportunity to photosynthesise. Monica designed training that would help the mimosa to refine its risk/benefit analysis.

She dropped potted mimosas repeatedly. At first the individual plants folded up their leaves in response to being dropped, but over repeated drops they learnt that being dropped didn't result in herbivore attack, and they stopped folding in their leaves. Weeks later, Monica subjected the plants to various agitations - touching, dropping - and found that although they were still sensitive to touching, they had lost their sensitivity to being dropped. That is to say, they had learnt that dropping didn't warrant giving up on opportunities to catch sunlight, and they remembered their lesson through time.

So, individual plants can learn and adapt, which is glorious, amazing, challenges all my ideas about how mind works and what plants are. But it also makes extra poignant the fact that the messages the plants are getting these days are so mixed, and the lessons so one-offish (floods one year, droughts the next).

For now, though, it's working out quite well for us plant-eaters. I brought in this ridiculous haul of backyard fruit on Saturday - a week after the Solstice.

 Fruit! Raspberries conspicuously absent (someone may have eaten them before they made it inside).

So, citrus, tamarillos and over-the-hill feijoas. Some kind of Winter we've got here.

Bonus chicken photo.